Before Lochside Theatre came into being the only theatre in Castle Douglas was situated in an old army hut and owned by Unity Players. It was called the Little Theatre and it lived up to that name because it must only have had seating for about 30 and the headroom on the stage would be about 8 feet. By the middle 1970s the firemaster had decreed that it could no longer operate as a theatre.
It did continue in use as Unity Players base, but thoughts turned to some kind of replacement as the building itself was beginning to require attention. In the beginning, the intention was of replacing like with like, but in 1984, Donald Fullarton had the idea that something better could be achieved if Crossmichael Drama Club and Castle Douglas & District Musical Society were involved. A joint meeting was called, a committee was formed, and Galloway Arts Project was born. Jim Paterson was treasurer of that first committee, and is still looking for someone willing to take the job from him.
A company limited by guarantee was formed after the first year, and originally all of the members of the founding clubs were members of GAP (as it became known) and each club elected five directors to the board. Later, independent members unconnected to the clubs were allowed to join, and finally, we became a totally separate organisation, with all members having equal voting rights.
Our first target was to obtain a site for our proposed theatre and there was a suitable vacant site in Blackpark Road adjacent to the old Little Theatre. This was owned by the Douglas Mortification Trust of which Stewartry District Council were Trustees, and it did not take long to negotiate its purchase. Although it was recorded as a purchase at market value, in fact Stewartry District Council awarded a grant that more or less covered the price.
We then entered the first of several long periods when fundraising carried on but nothing much else seemed to happen. In the background, one of our members, Brian Murray, who is an architect was producing the plans for a new theatre building on our site. On the fundraising side, we tried many things, some with more success than others. Direct mailshots to individuals, local businesses and national businesses met with only modest success.
Our main annual moneyspinner from 1987 onwards was our annual pantomime, and our 100 Club which, to use the technical term is a Private Lottery, has brought a steady monthly income since the earliest years. In recent years our main income or sponsor perhaps we should say is from a group of companies within the Internet casino industry. Four companies that have been particularly generous throughout the years have been the online casino portal named N1casino, superlenny casino bonus, thinkorSwim company and casino bonus codes. Christmas dances were held in the Town Hall for a number of years during the fundraising period, and some were very successful. Theatrical entertainments and dances were put on at other times of the year, as were old favourites such as jumble sales.
By 1990 we were ready to make a start, with grants promised for the first phase from both Stewartry District Council and Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council, and over the next year the shell of the building took shape. This building, now known to our members as the ‘shed’, was intended to form the auditorium, with a second section to follow of similar floor area but less high. However, the project took a new turn and the shed remained a shed.
Even as work was progressing on the shed, we learned that St Andrews Church was to close and was likely to come on the market. We took what was a very difficult decision at the time to buy the church, and to put the shed on the market.
By way of bridging finance, we arranged some interest free loans from supporters, and took a commercial loan. This all happened in 1992 and as it took until 2002 to sell the shed, these arrangements have only recently been unravelled.
The shed has been very useful to us as a store and workshop not only for ourselves but for our three founding clubs who also used the shed. In the early days, storage and workshop facilities were actually more important as far as the clubs were concerned than an auditorium, as they had been working in such locations as farm outbuildings, but all are now agreed that we can cope using accommodation in the Theatre and in the old Unity hut which has been made wind and watertight, and altered internally to maximise the space.
Having ploughed all of our funds into the church there now began another round of grant applications to secure funding to convert the church into a theatre. The Scottish Arts Council had awarded us £5,000 for the shed project, and this was held over and used in the first phase of the conversion of the church. An application to the Foundation for Sport and the Arts was successful although only for 40% of the sum requested, and a grant was also obtained from Galloway Groundbase.
Again Brian Murray was the architect, although by this time he had moved to Largs. We are frequently complimented on the design of the Theatre and are grateful to Brian for the sympathetic way he envisaged the conversion.
The first phase work consisted of installing the stage and partitioning off the various spaces for dressing rooms, toilets etc. We envisaged opening with seating on the flat and proceeding with further stages of conversion as and when funding would permit.
An application to Stewartry District Council for a major grant to complete the conversion resulted in protracted negotiations, which although frustrating at the time, might now be seen as a blessing in disguise. Eventually, a grant was awarded for £50,000 but with two important conditions attached. Tiered seating was to be installed and we had to obtain our Theatre Licence before they would release the final instalment of the grant.
The blessing in disguise was the fact that by the time all of this had been agreed, the National Lottery had come into being, and to our surprise, our first application to the Scottish Arts Council for a lottery grant was approved in full, taking into account the Stewartry grant as partnership funding. Again, there were conditions, principally that the layout of the ancillary spaces had to be totally rethought. The bar was relocated from under the seating to adjacent to the foyer, the toilets in turn moved to the dressing room space, and the dressing rooms are now on two levels in the transept at the rear of the building. We gained the session room as an additional public area, at the expense of some of our storage space.
Our amended application to the lottery was beefed up as much as possible to twice the original figure, and now to 80% of budgeted cost, and again we were delighted to have it approved in full. The work now began in earnest aiming for our target of staging our 1996 pantomime as the first production. However, as is inevitable there was overspend on the budget. We applied again to the lottery but this time were only partially successful. Underestimates were allowed or not allowed depending on whether or not they should have been foreseen, and additions and alterations to the project were also judged on how they related to the approved project. We were awarded 80% of the costs which were approved, bringing the total of Lottery funding to £231,500. The actual cost of the building and equipment is around £400,000.